Problem Solving by Novice and Expert Pilots


Problem solving skills of pilot is crucial towards safety as it will play a vital role to mitigate incident and or accident. It can be thought as how a pilot uses their knowledge and thinking skills to develop approach that will help them to solve the problem that have raised in the flight. Further, Adams (1993) highlights that problem solving can be described in terms of Situational Awareness (SA) and Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM). All pilots are trained to perform in all normal and abnormal situations that may arise in the flights and this will help them to resolve emergencies when they occur. Additionally, it is vital that pilots should indentify early signs of any problem and take correct action before critical situation arise. To achieve this pilot should continuously monitor the environment that they are flying and be vigilant about the situation relative to the planned sequence of events through the whole flight. Problem solving is finding a way to return to the actual plan and it differs between novice and experts where they used conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge activities.

Conceptual Knowledge (CK) and Procedural Knowledge (PK)

CK consists of knowledge that could be verbalised or information on facts and it is the underlying resource to solve the problem. On the other hand, PK which will enable pilots to understand how sensed and perceived information is used in the thinking process and includes knowledge about how to execute various cognitive activities. This knowledge is learned by doing exercises such as steep turns, cross wind landing. Adams (1993) highlights that problem solving skills include PK as it is learned association of facts, action and result with which certain conditions is learned through experience and there are considerable difference between the thinking process formed by novice and expert pilot.

There are three type of thinking process namely algorithms, heuristic and production rules (Diggory, 1992). Firstly algorithms are procedures which will ensure that correct solution to a problem is assured because it combines through search of CK and PK. Secondly, heuristics also known as “rule of thumb” which will offer solution to a problem but it is not best form as it may not provide the correct solution. Finally, production rules consist of CK and it combines general problem solving procedure and pilot comes with the newly generated solution to the specific problem procedures. So what does this means to novice and expert pilots?

Novice pilot solves problem by heuristic methods. This has been exemplified from the topic “aborted Take Off”. In this situation novice student pilot tried to solve the problem using rule of thumb i.e abort take-off where it was not necessary as instructor commented in the debrief “he also mentioned that if I had told him he would still be happy to continue the takeoff”. This shows that aborting take off was not necessary. Despite that it shows the good ADM especially when student pilot just had minimal hours.

As experience is gained pilot starts to develop problem solving capability which will enhance decision making process. In above example if instructor took control and continued take off it was problem solving based on algorithm thinking which would have been systematic and thorough search of the conceptual and procedural knowledge base, examination of all possibility evaluating alternatives. Instructor did apply maximum brake enabling aircraft to stop preventing to over run from runway available where (Hoffman, 1993) highlight that experts draw more complex conceptual distinction than novices.

Steps to Assist in Problem Solving

Despite being novice or expert there are numerous steps that can be adopted to assist pilot in solving problems and these are;

  1. Clarify the problem and identify the key element of problems: It is easier to solve the specific problem than one that is not distinguished properly.
  2. Identify the cause of the problem: Problems are set off by something observable. If fuel gauge shows lower fuel than pre planned. Identify it; monitor fuel pressure, fuel flow (if your aircraft is equipped). This will determine what kinds of problem solving skills you will apply. Faulty fuel gauge problem solving skills will differ from empty fuel tank.
  3. Work with others where possible: Everything being equal, several people working on a difficult problem tend to produce better solution than one person. This is synergy where 1+ 1= 3. Synergy means the total output of greater than the sum of the the individual outputs. For pilot it means using all resources. This involves getting help from Air Traffic Controller (ATC), talking to someone on operation. For example see dotwikifan. In this story the student pilot did talk to Ohakea Control which helped him/ her in solving problem i.e. finding a heading to his/ her destination.
  4. Solve one problem at a time: Despite the huge capacity/ memory the brain can give its conscious attention to one specific work at a time. Pilot might be able to carry out few tasks like changing altimeter, changing radio frequency simultaneously but this task is prone to the error especially when pilot are novice. This is because novice pilot have high mental workload and floor of sensory information into the brain are considerable high and is working at high capacity. This will reduce the residual mental capacity to solve problems. As pilots are more expert their residual mental capacity increase and this will enable them in problem solving.
Just for laughs (Click to enlarge)
A Problem Solving Flowchart (image embedded from lucidchart on 21 August 2012)
1. Adams. R. J. (1993). How expert pilots think: Cognitive processes in expert decision making. Washington DC: US Department of Transportation.
2. Diggory, S.F. (1992). Cognitive processes in education. Michigan, USA: HarperCollins Publishers.
3. Hoffman, R. (1996). Exploring expertise: How can expertise be defined? Implication of research from cognitive psychology. Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Edinburgh Press.

Want to know more?

Aviationknowledge - Situational Awareness
Further information on Situational Awareness
Aviationknowledge - Aeronautical-Decision-Making
Further information on aeronautical-decision-making
Aviationknowledge - Take-off & Landing Incidents
Forum entries on take-off & landing incidents

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